Tag Archives: 5K

In Pittsburgh: A Race, a Roar, and a Prisoner’s Running Shoes

Between fatherhood, writing, and promoting, 2014 has been a crazy year.  I haven’t been able to dedicate nearly enough time to running over the past few months, so I was hesitant to participate in one of my usual races – The Great Race, in Pittsburgh.  The Great Race has 5K and 10K options, and I have always chosen to run in the 10K which is point-to-point, meaning you do not end up where you started.  The point-to-point course can be troublesome for logistics, but allows runners to experience the beauty of Pittsburgh while traveling 6.2 miles through the streets on a mostly downhill course.

I don’t usually write race recaps, but I’m going to do this one – but in a different manner.  Below are photos from potions of the wonderful course and a song from my iPod playlist that corresponds to that mile.  Before you ask how I managed to take photos and listen to music while running along with 10,000+ people, it’s because I decided to take my time and enjoy the event rather than focus on achieving a certain time.  It made the experience very enjoyable and made me appreciate Pittsburgh even more.


The Start

photo 1 (4)

With this race, there is a slight challenge with actually get to the starting line.  As has happened to me many times before, I watched competitors line up to start while I was still standing in a line to simply get to the starting area.  The standing and waiting are frustrating and it’s something I dread each year.  However, I suppose this is the price you pay to participate in 10K with this many people.  In this case, the race is worth the wait.

Playlist Song:  Long Hard Times to Come – theme music from the show Justified


Mile 1

photo 3 (1)


It’s slow going for the first mile, as everyone is bottled up for a downhill start and then a sudden uphill climb onto Forbes Ave.  Things spread out a bit as runners make their way through Squirrel Hill, but it’s still a part of the race where you can expect to see one or two people take a tumble.  The noise from the spectators is motivating for most of us.

This year I had the pleasure of seeing my wife and 3 yr old daughter standing on one of the corners.  I beamed as I prepared to hear my little girl cheer her daddy on.  As I passed by she inexplicably roared like a monster, which I chose to interpret as her version of a motivational speech.

Playlist Song:  Little Monster by Royal Blood


Mile 2

photo 4

Very close to the start of Mile 2, runners were cheered on by a pack of greyhounds.  That’s right – representatives from a cool organization called the Steel City Greyhounds , including some very interested dogs, were on hand.  SCG is a non-profit that promotes the adoption of retired racing greyhounds and their presence did not go unnoticed.

I did my best to ignore some of the condescending looks I got from the dogs as I meandered by.  They are beautiful dogs, but a little pompous when it comes to the subject of speed.

Near the end of Mile 2, we cruise by the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.  One of my favorite sights on the campus is the piece of art in the above photo.  I’m not sure where those people are walking, but I’m impressed by their extraordinary balance.

Throughout the race, runners pass by CMU, Pitt, Duquesne University, Carlow University, and Point Park University.  The culture of higher education in Pittsburgh is something that is often overlooked, but may be one of the reasons the city has been named one of the most literate in the country.  Ahh… college.

Playlist song:  Whiskey Hangover by Godsmack


Mile 3

photo 5

The 5th Avenue stretch of the race is downhill and takes runners through the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  In addition to beautiful campus views, participants pass by fabulous museums and picturesque churches.  Since I was doing my best not to fall while running, I managed to not photograph most of that great imagery, but got a nice photo of some lady in a purple shirt.

But in the distance, you can see the gaggle of runners descending into one of my favorite sections of Pittsburgh.  When you can see how many people are in this race with you, it’s inspiring and motivating.  Hopes run high.

Playlist song:  High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen


Mile 4

photo 10

Toward the end of Mile 4, you hit the Boulevard of the Allies.  Things get a little tight here as guard rails and concrete barriers funnel the runners into a narrow stream of exertion.  The view of downtown is incredible and your mind starts to believe you are on the home stretch.  You aren’t.  If you studied your elevation chart, you know there is one more challenge ahead.

Playlist song:  Know Your Enemy by Rage Against the Machine


Mile 5

photo 6

photo 7

The Boulevard of the Allies gets a little feisty and ascends upward toward Duquesne University.  Once you get under the elevated walkway you pass by the Allegheny County Jail, which is the brick structure on the left in the photos.  Often, the prisoners stand in the windows and watch the runners pass.

As an aside:  Did you know 4 out of 5 prisoners prefer a very specific running shoe?
The Nike Free, of course.


Playlist song:  Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash


Mile 6

photo 8

Into downtown Pittsburgh we go!  The road flattens out and people pick up the pace.  Here, runners take a lightning speed tour of modern Pittsburgh and any preconceived notions of the old Rust Belt city are tossed aside.  Buildings that house biotech, health care, and banking giants cast shadows over quality restaurants and coffee shops.  Now, we are really in the home stretch and headed to the intersection of the three rivers that have shaped this city.

Playlist Song:  The Last Mile by Cinderella (Don’t judge, I like my hair bands)


Mile 0.2

photo 9


Here is a fairly lousy photo of the finish line crowd at Point State Park.  The mass of people in this area makes the post-race search for food and water a little challenging, but tolerable.  The best part about this finish area is that you are a short walk away from multiple parking garages and can easily take a stroll across a bridge to get the North Shore.  Unfortunately, this year’s race was on the same day as a Steelers game, so parking and traffic were a bit of a problem.  However, the overall race experience was once again positive.

The faces of the runners in the park tell the story.  For some runners, this was their first race and they trained long and hard.  For others, it was a warm-up for a fall half-marathon or marathon.  Everyone fights their own little battle.

Playlist song:  Trenches by Pop Evil


For those of us who were not participating in order to achieve a specific running goal, it was a great way to appreciate a city that is just now starting to get the proper amount of attention in literature and by the movie industry.

Pittsburgh is not only a great setting for a story.  It’s a great setting for your story.

What is your ideal running city?  Why?


J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Measure Twice.  He is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

RESOLVE has been named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization and was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.

witter @JJHensleyauthor



Barnes and Noble

An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.

Measure Twice 750 x 1200 jpeg

Pennywise the Clown and The Elusive Age Group Medal

I’m not a particularly good runner.  Many people assume I can run well because I write novels that include some distance running, but that logic is a bit skewed.  If being able to effectively write about performing a task was the same as actually being able to do it well, history would be full of authors with some troubling skill sets.  Fyodor Dostoevsky would have been walking around Russia murdering people with an axe (although escaping detection would not have been his strong suit), Vince Flynn would have been taking trips abroad to kill terrorists, before heading back to his quiet home in Minnesota.  And while Stephen King might normally be a hoot at birthday parties, the whole conjuring up Pennywise the clown thing would be a big downer for the kids.


So while I can run further and faster than some people, I’ve always been a middle-of-the-pack guy regardless of if I was running a marathon or a 5K.  But my mediocrity didn’t stop me from fantasizing about taking home one particular prize.  While some runners have dreams about winning races and taking home prize money, I never have.  The elite runners out there shoot for endorsement deals that will help finance their pulse-racing habit, but not I.  No, no, no.  For years I pursued something less celebrated, yet nearly impossible to obtain.  My white whale was not a marathon victory.  It was the always-elusive age group medal.

You see, in most races the top three finishers in a gender-separated age group win a medal.  It’s a nice way to allow runners close to the same age and gender to compete against each other.  Several years ago, when I first got involved with the sport of distance running, I realized I would probably never have a shot at winning one of these medals for any distance longer than a 10K (6.2 miles).  Then, I trained for speed, ran a few 10K races, and decided I would probably never have a shot at winning one of these medals for any distance longer than a 5K (3.1 miles).  Then, after a few poor showings, I finished 6th in my age group at a mid-sized 5K race.  With a new dose of confidence, my brain said, “Game on!”  I had decided I was going to win a 5K age group medal.

I signed up for more races and did all I could to become a speeding bullet on the charity 5K circuit.  I lost weight, I ate better, and I bought new shoes that just HAD to make me faster.  I was invested in this pursuit.  Not only that, but I had recently turned 35 years-old, which means I was now on the younger side of the 35-39 year-old age group.  The stars were aligning… until they weren’t.

I showed up to race after race and the gods of middle-age/middle-distance running conspired against me.  Some race organizers, who must have seen that I was certain to dominate, fixed the races by allowing too many other people my age to enter.  By doing this, they intentionally lowered my odds of getting a medal.  While they didn’t technically break any rules by allowing these individuals to compete, I think it’s obvious that the fix was in.  In spite of this, I ran a series of races around Pittsburgh and repeatedly fell between 4th and 6th in the men’s 30-39 age group.  In one race, I achieved a personal record (PR) and still managed to come in 4th.  To make matters worse, I was nearly beaten across the line by a 4’10”, 12 year-old girl named Mandy.  I should have demanded she be drug tested after the race, but I let it go.


Some race organizers took a different route in plotting against me by placing large hills on the course.  Many of the hills were steep and made me tired.  I didn’t like that.  Other organizers, expanded the five-year age group categories into ridiculous ten-year spans, meaning I was now competing with all of those between the ages of 30-49.  Lunacy!  I tried to ignore their animosity toward me, but again finished just outside the top three in these races.  With all of these race organizers (who acted as if they didn’t know who I was) working against me, I decided it was time to take the show on the road.  I decided the war would be won in Cincinnati.

This time, I did my research.  The course was flat, the entry numbers low, and the age group narrow.  The weather that morning was going to be perfect and my mind was right.  I woke up early and just knew it was going to be my day.  There was no doubt in my mind that 22-25 minutes after that starting pistol fired, I was going to be one of the few age group medal winners.  I laced up my shoes, grabbed my gear, and headed out toward my destiny.

As I lined up for the start, I was determined to put on a show that the 17 roaring spectators standing in the parking lot of the Coney Island Amusement Park would remember for hours.  In the seconds before the start of the race, I put on my Full Metal Jacket war face and then I went to work.  22 minutes and 16 seconds later, I flashed across the finish line having left it all out on the course.  During that final stretch, I had actually been able to count the male runners, of varying ages, ahead of me.  There had been eight.  Only eight.  When the results were posted, I stared at the printout taped to the wall of a trailer.  Of the eight men who had been ahead of me, three were in my age group.  I had run my second best 5K time ever and finished 4th in my age group – again.  That was in dark year of 2012.

Fast forward to April 2013.  I was no longer “fast” and had all but given up my quest for the average runner’s Lost Ark.  I was promoting my new book by helping to sponsor a local 5K race north of Pittsburgh.  I decided to run the race, but I knew I wouldn’t be very fast.  For the previous week, the weather had been unseasonably warm for April, meaning the turnout for the race would likely be huge.  This meant I would end up buried in my age group, which for this race was the Grand Canyon expanse of 30-39.  Even a top ten age group finish was unlikely.

I awoke early the morning of the race and opened the blinds on a window.  My eyes widened at what lay before me.  It was snow.  Not just snow… a LOT of snow.  It looked like a freak’n spring blizzard and the white stuff was still tumbling out of the sky.  I stared in disbelief and wondered if the race would be cancelled.  After sliding my car like a bobsled to the local park where the race was to be held, I learned they were going to go through with the 5K.  However, the herd had been thinned by the unexpected snow and only a scattering of runners milled about in the minutes leading up to the designated start time.  Most of those who had entered had opted to stay in bed and let the nutcases run the race.



The April 2013 5K course as I remember it.





I’m not a particularly good runner.  I think I mentioned that.  On that snowy day in April 2013, I still wasn’t a particularly good runner.  But, on that day I showed up and I competed.  I plodded through a 24+ minute finish and tried not to freeze while waiting for the awards to be announced.  A copy of my first novel was being awarded as a one of the prizes, and I was supposed to stick around and sign it for the winner.  Then they called my name, but not to come up and sign the book.  They called me up to accept an age group medal.  My frozen hand took the medal and I draped it over my chilled neck.  I turned to the seven or eight people who remained and I proudly sported the gleaming circle engraved with a giant “2” in the center.  That’s right.  For that one day in April, I was deemed to be Number 2 and I shoved aside the numerous bathroom jokes that flew through my mind.  I had my medal.

Throughout this journey, I learned three things:

  1. Measuring your own performance against others is often a losing battle. There are too many variables that are out of your control.  There is nothing wrong with competing against others, as long as you keep it in perspective.
  2. The way you ultimately “win” is by continuing to show up even when others may think you are crazy.
  3. Even when you think you are at your very best in a race, there is likely some 12 year-old girl who thinks you look pretty silly as you panic to beat her across the line. And you know what?  She’s probably right.

Have you ever won and age group medal?  Do you want to?

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Measure Twice.  He is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

RESOLVE has been named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization.

RESOLVE was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.

Twitter @JJHensleyauthor

THIS September!

An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.  

Measure Twice 750 x 1200 jpeg